Rough sailing indeed.

Last December, I speculated that 2009 would be a tough year for the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean Nuclear Crisis. It seems I was right.

Last year, Pyongyang embarked on its usual saber-rattling rethoric after Japan decided to halt its fuel aid to the hermit country for its “failure to resolve” the issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals. The North Koreans insisted that the issue has been resolved, claiming that the Japanese abductees are already dead. Japan refutes this, saying Pyongyang has consistently failed to present conclusive pieces of evidence that will prove the death of the abductees.

And yesterday, an ex-spy from North Korea who had defected to and is now living in South Korea, Kim Hyon Hui, met with the family of Yaeko Taguchi, one of the Japanese abductees, in Busan. Kim told Taguchi’s relatives that the abductee is still alive.

“I have no doubt your mother is still alive,” Kim, who is believed to have learned Japanese from Taguchi, told them in Japanese.

This is contrary to Pyongyans’s claim that Taguchi had died in an accident in July 1986.

I have no idea how Kim was able to know that Taguchi is still alive, but her statement nevertheless complicates the resolution of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis because of two implications:

First, it validates Tokyo’s claim that the Abductions Issue is far from resolved. This further reinforces Tokyo’s decision not to resume fuel aid to North Korea.

And it would seem that, unlike the Bush administration who turned its back to the abductees in the latter part of the Talks last year, the Obama administration is poised to back Japan up on this issue. In her visit to Japan a couple of weeks ago, for instance, Hillary Clinton assured the Japanese government that the Abduction Issue is high on Obama’s agenda. Of course, the reason behind this renewed US support is that the US needs Japan’s support in Obama’s war in Afghanistan.

And these renewed leverages for Tokyo– Kim’s statement and Obama’s support– will enable Japan to push the Abductions Issue on the agenda of any multilateral effort to resolve the North Korean crisis. As demonstrated before, Tokyo’s stubborness to make the issue a multilateral problem instead of a bilateral one would obstruct the larger effort to push North Korea towards denuclearization.

Second, the fact that the South Korean government allowed the meeting to take place within its territory is a signal that Seoul, under the leadership of Lee Myung-bak and his conservative Grand National Party (GNP), is reallymoving to the right side of the political spectrum. Earlier this year, Lee totally scrapped his predecessors’ Sunshine Policy of engaging North Korea and started tying aid to disarmament. Now, with this meeting, the Lee government has demonstrated how far it can go in antagonizing North Korea.

Therefore, unlike in 2007-2008 when parties to the Talks were generally open-minded and optimistic of the negotiations (South Korea was under the liberal Roh Moo-yun, Japan was under the pacifist Yasuo Fukuda and Bush was willing to make concessions), today the atmosphere is tense. There are talks that another round of North Korean missile testing is underway. North Korea is currently short of cursing the other parties to the talks. And both Japan’s Aso and South Korea’s Lee are not in the position to falter in their conservative approach to the crisis.

Given this, I now doubt if the parties can even resume the talks at all.


2 thoughts on “Rough sailing indeed.”

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